If you’ve ever worked at the front desk of a business like me (or have known someone in a similar position), you probably know to expect both good and bad. Some days provide the pleasure of rapport with customers, the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes with knowing where everything is and who can help whom. Then there are days that test your nerve and chip your ego. Foreign scammers call from another hemisphere trying to obtain your personal information. Faceless busybodies demand to know your job title and what you do all day.
The Bible is clear on our need for gratitude to God in every circumstance—didn’t John the Baptist tell Roman soldiers to “be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14 NKJV)? Our jobs, though, can leave us feeling like bit characters in a made-for-TV movie, as if our daily effort to earn a living is unworthy of attention. After all, how many novels do you read that are brave enough to chronicle a protagonist’s day at the checkout counter? I’ve noticed that the interesting parts of movies and books tend to happen after five o’clock or before somebody’s punched in. There’s a subtle, demoralizing implication that we spend most of our lives doing insignificant work so that we can do important things on the weekend.
Christians work differently. Our jobs are God’s gift of purpose to us: “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). We may have human supervisors who evaluate our work and customers we are bound to serve, but we work principally “as to the Lord and not to men…for you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 2:23-24). A commitment to remembering this fact will raise whatever work we do each week—even the drudging, red-eyed, stiff-muscled parts of it—to a level of contented significance we could never attain if we treat our jobs as curses or chores from God. If we choose to work well and pursue quality, we profit his kingdom. Without speaking we testify to our coworkers and friends that what we do matters to us because God matters to us.
My grandparents were the paragon of the Christian work ethic to me. My grandfather drove a truck for a brewery—difficult, backbreaking labor. He only had a seventh-grade education, but he was relentlessly punctual and never shied from a task. The company closed when he was near retirement, and he was the only laid-off worker recommended by his boss for a position elsewhere. My grandmother was a housewife for most of her life and churned out thousands of homemade meals in a cramped kitchen. They were flawed people working for God.
The great Chicago pastor A.W. Tozer wrote this prayer to God: “Be Thou exalted over my reputation. Make me ambitious to please Thee even if as a result I must sink into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream” (The Pursuit of God 108). Too often we cede our minds to the worldly definition of significance—if you matter, then you will be noticed, you will be recognized, you will be remembered when you are gone. Indeed some excellent Christians will be remembered by history forever. Most—perhaps some of the best—will not. That’s because they accepted work from God that took them away from the world’s eyes and put them where they were needed. On missions. In offices and warehouses. On their neighbors’ doorsteps. Their names may be lost or known only to a few, but their accomplishments endure for eternity.
The Bible calls David a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). We find David’s character expressed in a powerful Psalm that declares, “A day in your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:5-7). David would have accepted the doorman’s job—a lowly post in the world’s assessment—if it meant working where God wanted him and doing what God had set him there to do.
The only question is: Would you do the same?
There once came a moment for me when, just like everybody, I desired to do something intensely but felt nervous and uncertain about the outcome. Like any sorry Christian, I turned to God and asked him to rubberstamp what I wanted, just to know it was okay to go for it. From reading the Bible I intimated that he was telling me no, but I continued to pray and struggle and press harder against his response, convinced that I was letting my nerves fool me into missing his true reply.
Then, while I was studying a passage from Charles Stanley’s daily readings in his magazine InTouch, the answer smacked me. It was as simple as a word. No. Immediately I felt the heaviness of my stubborn attitude. God had pointed out how my desires were blinding me to applying what I knew in my head—that his purposes were right and his truth ultimate. The fear I felt at having come so close to a foolish decision was matched only by the relief of knowing God had protected me from that choice and was even willing to shout at us if it meant our good.
Mulling this experience, I realized not just that God had responded, but that he had spoken. This answer was the voice of God, and I had heard it. In the popular imagination, hearing the voice of God is a phenomenon usually relegated to criminal schizophrenics on Law & Order. But though this voice was real and present, I knew I hadn’t hallucinated it because it didn’t manifest as an audible sound, or really anything that touched my senses. Rather, it was the force of God’s personality leaning on my own spirit—the sense of his truth combating and overwhelming my own version of reality. It was “Discretion will preserve you” (Proverbs 2:11 NKJV) vs. “You can have it all, just as you want it, right now.” It was words, not of my own devising, that appeared in my mind while praying halfheartedly for an expected answer.
From this treasured occurrence, I drew out three characteristics associated with hearing God’s voice that can help us discern when we can be sure he is speaking. I believe all of these traits are scriptural and that they are borne out both in the Bible’s narratives and in firsthand Christian experience.
While I firmly believe these truths to be the touchstones of listening to God, I would welcome any additional guidance or wisdom that God has revealed to you through your experience in prayer and seeking to hear his voice.
Sometimes approaching God in prayer can feel like confronting a stern parent, or walking up to that potential prom date you’ve been nerving yourself to ask out, or talking to that kind teacher who likes you but doesn’t know you too well (and if she did, well, maybe she wouldn’t like you so much). All of these situations have the same result—we clamp a mask on our face and assume a false, usually one-dimensional personality that we hope will please the other person. We plead for forgiveness, we try to dazzle with our knowledge or maturity, we nod and smile.
When we deal with people, this act may work. We may get the leniency or the yes or the approval that we want, but always with a bitter, burning feeling of artificiality. But our false personas won’t work when we are praying to God. He knows and understands us at a level that even we cannot reach (Ps. 139:1-4 NKJV). It frustrates the work of God’s Spirit within us when we are false with him, and removes the condition under which actual growth occurs—a state of total openness in which we shed our pretensions and come to see the world (and ourselves) as he does.
Martin Luther, in his brilliant work “A Simple Way to Pray,” said that we must make prayer our “first business of the day.” Morning is an excellent time to be open with God. The day’s demanding work has yet to put its roots into our thoughts and drive our minds toward plain and unspiritual things, important as they may be. We are also fresh from sleep (those of you with little kids in the house should forgive me saying this), and we need the godly fortitude, not just the physical strength, to thrive in the new day.
The Book of Psalms instructs us on prayer in the best way—by example. David’s lyrics do include praise, but the Psalms are also laced with despair, anger, mourning, and complaint. In other words, they are honest. The writer hides nothing, and prays everything. He asks God why evil people are prosperous (Psalm 73) and why the wicked seem to be favored unjustly (Psalm 82). He accuses God of being distant from him (10:1). He begs for mercy (38:1). These are not the writings of a believer who dresses his feelings in a pretty packaging before giving them to God. They are hard, sometimes joyful, sometimes distraught, songs about wrestling with God’s will. Notice, however, that the Psalms are not mere outpourings. All of them, even the ones composed on days of dread, ask God to reveal himself. Praying men and women must be more than honest, must seek what God wants them to know or do even amidst grief and crippling emotions. Psalm 73 reads like a realization at its midpoint: “…I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood [the wicked’s] end. Surely you set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction” (v. 17-18).
Prayer must not be an exercise in self-therapy. The confidence that God is personal, that we can know him, must be the core motivation of our prayers. Even if we pray about ourselves or for others, we must redirect our focus to God, to his perfect knowledge, to his love, to his desire to give us everything good in his eyes and still have us want him the most. If we pray before the concerns of the day hit us, pray without any concealment of our thoughts or emotions, pray to God and not to ourselves, then we will find him overwhelming and refreshing us with a sense of his purpose at work in our everyday lives.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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